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Inside Washington

McConnell turns away from Trump as Congress hones Christmas coronavirus rescue bill

The Senate majority leader is letting out encouraging noises on a deal that for months looked out of reach, writes Griffin Connolly

Wednesday 16 December 2020 13:34 GMT
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US Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell
US Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (EPA)

“We are close.”

That’s what House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters at 10pm on Tuesday about ongoing negotiations for a new Covid relief package among party leaders on Capitol Hill.

“I think we’ve built a lot of trust. I think we’re moving in the right direction. I think there’s a possibility of getting it done,” the California Republican said.

That’s what happens when you finally huddle in a room together, as did the “four corners” of congressional leadership – Mr McCarthy, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate leaders Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer – throughout the evening on Tuesday, for the first time in months.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, the Trump administration’s viceroy to Capitol Hill throughout the pandemic, joined the talks via teleconference.

One wonders why the leaders couldn’t bring themselves to do this earlier, why Congress always waits until the 11th hour to cut a deal.

But such is the power of yearning to be home for the holidays: Pre-Christmas deadlines have a rich history of whipping lawmakers into action so they can dispense with public posturing and cobble together last-minute legislation.

And so we’re finally nearing the stage of negotiations where stakeholders begin using various “yard lines” on an American football field to describe how close they are to a final agreement.

Leaders were characteristically coy with reporters on Tuesday about how the package was shaping up. But based on their most recent statements we can reasonably assume it will not include money for state and local governments (Democrats’ sticking point) or any clause that will shield businesses, health care providers, and school systems from liability lawsuits stemming from exposure to the virus (Republicans’ sticking point).

There’s been no word on whether an agreement will include another round of $1,200 stimulus checks, a proposal that has united the odd couple of Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Josh Hawley of Missouri. Mr Sanders is still threatening to hold the government funding bill hostage on Friday if that programme is not reauthorised.

The leaders are aiming to finalise a deal on Covid sometime on Wednesday so they can bolt it onto the omnibus government appropriations package for a House vote on Thursday evening. That would be followed by a Senate vote on Friday with time to spare so Donald Trump could sign it before government funding lapses at midnight.

“Everybody wants to finish,” Mr McConnell told reporters in a rare impromptu press gaggle on Tuesday evening. The majority leader is notoriously calculated whenever he addresses the press, and rarely speaks with reporters so informally.

“Everybody wants to get a final agreement, as soon as possible. We all believe the country needs it. And I think we're getting closer and closer,” Mr McConnell said.

Speaking of the majority leader, Tuesday marked the first time he acknowledged Joe Biden as America’s president-elect, a monumental break from the Trump administration’s posture. He and at least two other Senate GOP leaders privately implored their colleagues on Tuesday to move forward with the reality that Mr Trump has not won another four years.

Some of the president’s most ardent backers in the House have been trying to cajole a Republican senator – they just need one – to force a vote challenging the validity of Mr Biden’s Electoral College victory.

But as Mr McConnell has warned his colleagues, such a vote would deeply divide the party and at a time when it most urgently needs to hold together.

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